Tuesday, January 25, 2011

In SOTU, Obama pushes his "good faith" advantage

A few quick thoughts on the SOTU:

1) Obama began by building on his keynote political strength, which is that voters trust him far more than the Republicans to work in good faith with the opposition.  He came to national prominence by stressing national unity; he reaffirmed his ability to hit that note at highest pitch in the memorial service in Tucson; and he came into the SOTU riding his productive negotiation in the lame duck session. Rolling all that up with a gesture toward the Tucson imperative toward civility,  he in a sense bid to turn the Republicans' electoral success in November against them:
What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow.
I believe we can. I believe we must. That's what the people who sent us here expect of us. With their votes, they've determined that governing will now be a shared responsibility between parties. New laws will only pass with support from Democrats and Republicans. We will move forward together, or not at all - for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.
2.  In light of that initial call to unity and compromise, he cast commitments that have traditionally been regarded as bipartisan -- to education, research and development, and infrastructure -- as linchpins of the country's long-term economic health. In so doing, he reversed the emphasis that many may have expected in the speech: crucial investments first, deficit reduction and the tax reform that would enable it second.  Jobs were not put forward in a vacuum,  but as an outgrowth of the investments he called for. Indeed, he laid surprisingly little emphasis on short-term economic goals.

The advocacy for "investment" is at this point a rearguard defense, a marker laid down against defunding stimulus allocations to infrastructure and education and alternative energy. 

3. There was an early and sustained emphasis on business and enterprise. By my rough word count, the word "business[es]" occurred roughly as often as the word "job[s]"  (a little shy of 30 each).  American aspiration and innovation were cast in terms of business development:
At stake right now is not who wins the next election - after all, we just had an election. At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else. It's whether the hard work and industry of our people is rewarded. It's whether we sustain the leadership that has made America not just a place on a map, but a light to the world.

We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.

But we have never measured progress by these yardsticks alone. We measure progress by the success of our people. By the jobs they can find and the quality of life those jobs offer. By the prospects of a small business owner who dreams of turning a good idea into a thriving enterprise. By the opportunities for a better life that we pass on to our children.
This emphasis extends the charm offensive to the business community and reminds the nation that there is no raving socialist in charge.  It's also completely consistent with Obama's rhetoric throughout his political life.

4. Deficit reduction was naturally cast in Democratic terms  -- as a matter of tackling entitlements and defense more than discretionary spending (flagged by Obama as just 12% of the budget), closing tax loopholes while reducing rates, and raising revenue -- with a respectful nod rather than a full-scale embrace of the Bowles-Simpson plan, which emphasized those elements, but in proportions and by means different from what Obama would put forward.  Republican passions -- PPACA repeal and draconian cuts to discretionary spending -- were dispatched with a fly-swat and sop to each -- openness to medical tort reform, and a discretionary spending freeze (as opposed to deep cuts). As I imagined a couple of nights ago, he put forward corporate tax reform -- closing loopholes while cutting rates -- as a kind of microcosm of global tax reform.  But he seemed to heed the warnings of those who stress that detailed presidential blueprints laid out in large public forums tend to harden partisan battle lines. Instead, characteristically, he set the broad parameters.

5. As he often does when he as the public stage, Obama made Republican shibboleths like HCR repeal and radical across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending seem like  fever dreams and carnival stunts:
Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine.
It was a confident speech. He projected a  sense that he knew where he wanted to take the country, where the key investments need to be, how to do structural deficit reduction.  The latter seemed distant, though, viewed from the wrong end of the telescope.  With a Republican House, where else could it be?  In the best of times, comprehensive tax and entitlement reform is the work of years. Perhaps some bipartisan work on corporate tax rates and loopholes can bring it a little closer.

UPDATE: Noam Scheiber highlights a grammatical manifestation of what I've called Obama's sops sops to GOP concerns: "Obama consistently threw rhetorical subordinate clauses to the opposition while preserving and defending his own liberal agenda in the main, specific clauses." If I were Jonathan Bernstein, I'd call that the catch of the day.

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